To explain the current headlines in the Arab world, we cite poor leadership, unemployment, rising food prices and of course, oil. I’m not going to try and refute any of these, but instead dig a little deeper, into the chronic water shortages that plague this region.
The term water wars is much used and much maligned, so let’s talk about water revolutions.
Libya. NATO and the NYtimes may care about the refineries, but for both sides the far more urgent question is securing the water supply. Qadaffi’s infamous ‘great man made river’ taps into ancient aquifers to provide both drinking water and irrigation to the cities on the coast. Look at the map:
One of the main reasons it was so crucial for the rebels to recapture Ajdabiya is that it stands astride the pipeline that feeds water to Benghazi. Further to the west, loyalists have cutoff water supply to Misurata, forcing the residents to rely on desalinated water.
This map matters both in the short term strategic sense and in the long term: Short term, whoever controls the water can secure a cities’ surrender in a matter of days. Long term, anything short of total victory for one side or the other will require a very delicate water sharing agreement…
Egypt: Mubarak made many mistakes, but one of the gravest remains unacknowledged. In an attempt to channel state resources to poor farmers, he massively subsidized irrigation water. Accordingly, many villages dump their trash in the waters, and farmers grow rice in the middle of the desert!
Beyond being wasteful, as water evaporates it leaves behind minerals that poison the land, displacing farmers and their children. With their incomes declining, many moved to the cities, where they formed the vast mass of unemployed living on subsidized bread and empty promises. All this volatile situation needed was a match.
Sudan/South Sudan in addition to a third of the territory and the oil, with South Sudan’s secession Bashir lost most of the country’s arable land, not to mention much of the White Nile and its hydroelectric potential. Ongoing negotiations specifically address sharing oil revenues, but as yet there are no agreements for sharing the water.
Ironically, water use lies at the heart of South Sudan’s cause. The rebel movement was sparked when Khartoum made plans to drain the vast Sudd wetlands, displacing those who depended on its abundant fish and wildlife. John Garang, its iconic leader, wrote his PhD thesis on the topic. Another of the South’s major grievances was their lack of electricity, as all of Sudan’s major dams were built to power Khartoum.
One last note on the Nile: while Sudan and Egypt were busy with their internal unrest, the upstream riparian signed a deal, the Comprehensive Framework Agreement. It effectively allows them to legally reallocate the Nile’s waters for their own purposes. And guess who’s paying for their dams in exchange for land rights? China.